No matter where he is or what he's wearing, when young Billy Batson shouts out the name of his superhero alter-ego, a bolt of lightning flashes through the sky and he is turned into Shazam!, transforming almost instantly from scrawny teenager to a stacked adult who handsomely fills out a bulging red muscle suit.
Billy is given this sacred power by an ancient wizard who promptly turns to dust, and it doesn't exactly come with an instruction manual. There have been more than a few retellings of the character's iconic origin since his 1939 debut, and in the new blockbuster movie from Warner Bros., Billy is left to explore his new powers as Shazam! on his own. He stumbles across his super-strength and ability to shoot lightning out of his hands relatively quickly (flying comes a bit later, under duress), but when it's time to drain the lightning bolt, so to speak, he's absolutely baffled.
Turns out the red suit doesn't have any obvious flaps that could be used for much-needed relief, so Shazam! has to pull a quick change back into Billy to use the can. Now, it's fair to point out that this is the rare situation in which a superhero is depicted as needing to use the bathroom, but it's also explicit that just about every other superhero changes into his or her costume the same way we all put on clothing, one leg at a time. Shazam!, on the other hand, is the only one who just appears in his super-suit. Which begs the question: Can Billy actually be naked as Shazam? Or is he forever in that suit?
We mentioned the scene to Zachary Levi during our interview with him at the Shazam! press day in New York last month, and while he told a great story about the difficulties of peeing in the costume on set, there was no indication either way about the character's ability to take off the suit. So we next asked director David Sanberg and producer Peter Safran, whose answers suggested some kind of conspiracy. Watch it in the video above, near the end.
As you can see, Safran was pretty quick to shut down even the prospect of exploring the nudity question in the now-inevitable Shazam! sequel. For such a light-hearted franchise about a teenage boy, it would only be natural for a story to explore his own physical explorations. But with that avenue obviously shut down, we had to turn our investigation to the source material.
First, we re-read Geoff Johns' New 52 run on Shazam!, which provided the basic storyline for the movie. We kept a careful eye out for any skin, but it was red from the neck on down when Billy was transformed into Shazam!. The comics volume didn't even have the bathroom gag — that was invented for the movie.
Canonically speaking, it seemed that we would find no evidence of this Shazam!'s ability to shed the red. But given the short history of the current iteration of the character, digging further into his past still seemed like a worthy endeavor; past is often prologue, especially as comic book movies dig further into old stories. So we reached out to several comics creators, in hopes of uncovering some indication of whether Shazam! could drop trou.
The hunt got off to an inauspicious start, when legendary comics creator Roy Thomas, who wrote the 1987 graphic novel Shazam: The New Beginning, played coy: "There are some things that mankind is not meant to know."
Huh. Did we really stumble upon a secret, much like the way young Billy Batson stumbled upon a subway cave filled with magic? Further digging was required, so we went to comic book historian Peter Sanderson. He couldn't tell us about modern-day Shazam!, but did point out some evidence of classic nudity.
"There is Golden Age cover in which Captain Marvel [Shazam!'s original name] is wearing a barrel because his uniform was stolen. The barrel cover is from Whiz Comics #50, from January 1944. In the cover story, Captain Marvel went skinny dipping and his costume was stolen. I have not read this story, but I wonder if a naked Captain Marvel turned into Billy Batson, would Billy be naked, too?"
Finally, some solid information — and yet another question, which we cannot yet answer. Sanderson, a font of knowledge, offered even more history for us to chew on.
"I also recall a 1940s storyline in which Captain Marvel wears a tuxedo," he said, "So presumably he could take his costume off. Whether present day Shazam continuity would accept the rule that these Golden Age stories seem to indicate, I have no idea."
As Sanderson noted, it's unclear whether the newer comics would accept the Golden Age nudity as canon — the current runs contain some of the classic elements from that original series, but those elements seem pretty cherrypicked. Geoff Johns didn't answer our repeated Twitter requests for comment (maybe he's part of the Thomas/Safran cover-up), so we looked for another iconic creator to provide some more context.
Maybe more modern comics would provide some deeper explanation either way. And with that in mind, we reached out to Jerry Ordway, who wrote the well-received 1994 graphic novel, Power of Shazam, for some perspective. Thankfully, he provided some.
"In my Power of Shazam comics, I figured that since Billy transforms from his own clothes into the costume and adult body, that he can mentally control the appearance of the costume, such as when I had him pretend to be his own dad for a parent-teacher meeting," Ordway said. "So, that said, it is still clothing, and he should be able to take it off."
That sort of control eludes the rookie hero version of Billy in the Shazam! movie, but it's possible that a more mature Billy might be able to harness it in a sequel... if the powers that be decide to explore it after all.